Exploring social capital with older persons in the community presenting with mental health issues

Ms Helene Cowley1, Mr Eli Arbel1, Professor Lynette Joubert2, Ms  Lisa Hebel1, Ms  JoAnne  Bevilacqua1

1NorthWestern Mental Health, Melbourne Health, Melbourne, Australia, 2University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia


This practice based pilot is a collaboration between North Western Mental Health (Melbourne Health) and the University of Melbourne. Our study aimed to shed light on the role of social capital with older people (65+) experiencing mental health issues.

To utilise Ecomaps, a social work intervention tool to facilitate discussions exploring a person’s current social networks and relationships. Based on these discussions with the client, specific goals were identified to improve social capital and to aim for a better mental health outcome.

A sample of aged participants were selected based on their suitability, which included cognitive capacity and clients who had not yet had social interventions as part of their treatment. The study involved a cross sectional design, and the use of a psychosocial questionnaire, previously developed  as part of practice research at Melbourne Health.

Initial results indicate that the use of Ecomaps is beneficial in supporting the identification of existing gaps within a consumers’ social capital, determining areas for development, and articulating what is most important to the client. Other benefits indicated include the value of a visual tool providing a macroscopic snapshot, and the process of engaging clients in an organic, reflective and narrative discussion that leads to problem-solving around social isolation.

Significance to Allied Health:
Previous practice-based research demonstrates a lack of focus on social capital when treating older patients with mental health issues. Given Australia’s growing ageing population, it is important to consider the role that social isolation plays in this population’s overall well-being.


Helene Cowley is Chief Social with the Aged Persons Mental Health Program at NorthWestern Mental Health, Melbourne Health. Helene has over 25 years experience as a social worker, and has special interests in the mental health of older people, aged care, consumer and carer participation, community development, health promotion and health equity issues.

Eli Arbel is a social worker and key clinician with the NorthWestern Aged Psychiatry Assessment & Treatment Team (APATT). Eli’s interests are in mental health generally, and aged mental health specifically. Eli also has a a particular interest in social work research, particularly as it applies to social work clinical practice in mental health.